Columnist: The myth of the lone wolf terrorist

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 1, 2015

By John A. Tures

Contributing columnist

On Nov. 13, 2015, I presented research to a conference that my students and I worked on concerning so-called “lone wolf” terrorism attacks or those by small groups.

That night, fellow conference participants watched in horror on the big screen hotel at the events unfolding in Paris that night, where hundreds of people at a concert hall, nightclub and stadium were killed.

Did we learning anything from our analysis of such cases from 2013 through 2015 that we presented yesterday, as well as sources providing data from years before 2013? We learned that many of these cases are mislabeled “lone wolf” attacks, which give the false impression that this terrorism is so random in its nature that it can’t be stopped.

The myth of the lone wolf terrorist is one that assumes terrorists are born that way. They are lifelong solitary individuals, akin to the Unabomber, striking at a completely random target, only to disappear into the shadows, without a hint to law enforcement. But that’s not always the case.

Terrorists are actually more likely to be made, not born. We found that such lone attackers are tend to be male, a little more likely to have more than a high school education and have experienced a recent change, like a lost job, a broken relationship, a move to a new area or something that altered one’s traditional life.

These folks, having experienced some socially dislocating event, often find a new community, either in person or online, with a politically-active group. This goes for someone who chooses a radical Islamic group, a right-wing group or even a left-wing organization, each of which pursues more confrontation than normal political activism.

Such a strategy is not an accident. Western powers have been largely able to curtail state-sponsors of terrorism. Even non-state actors like Al-Qaeda, who felt that their transnational status would make them harder to stop, could be neutralized for a time.

The same happened to domestic groups like the KKK or neo-Nazis. So terror networks needed a different strategy.

In order to carry out their asymmetric warfare, terrorist organizations would need attackers beyond the normal network. Terrorists would seek to recruit such disgruntled individuals to the cause and let them figure out how an attack could be carried out on their own.

These terror groups sacrificed command and control power over these new followers. But, in theory, such new recruits could be harder to track, and stop.

These “lone wolves” are therefore anything but “lone.” Though the media, government and even terrorists like ISIS themselves use the term, these new terror recruits are still connected to the group, even if such people do not have face-to-face contact or fly to the Middle East or some domestic compound for training.

These new recruits bring in family members or even other like-minded individuals. Yet we found cases like the Boston Marathon Bombing, the Oklahoma City Bombing or even 9/11 attacks carried out by “lone wolves.”

We found that in 24 cases between 2013 and 2015, 22 were labeled “lone wolves” even though only a third actually involved a solitary attacker. This research coincides with evidence found from pre-2013 studies.

A senior professor at the panel agreed with our assessment and added that perhaps one reason why the “lone wolf” term is used is hardly an accident. It’s easier to describe the attack as one that can’t be stopped, instead of realizing that these individuals are hardly alone.

Links still exist and there are dots to be connected. That’s often why in the wake of such an attack, those connections gradually surface, showing that few really were “lone wolves.”

John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College. He may be reached at